Friday, April 28, 2006

Back in the day...

I have become overwhelmed lately with the past. People and memories from years ago, long forgotten, feel nearer in time in ways they never have before. It's gut-wrenching. And beautiful.

So in an admittedly lame attempt at capturing these random bursts of nostalgia that I have been subjected to these past few weeks, I dug up this essay that I wrote in college years ago. I was the editor of an Indian literary magazine, and we were desperately scrounging for folks to submit their writing. So I wrote this silly little piece. The thing that strikes me immediately, is how utterly insincere it is while simultaneously being an important truth about my personal sense of identity and belonging. The moment I acknowledge that I am an American at least as much as I am Indian.

There was an ongoing war going on at the time between first generation Indians and Indians who had grown up in America. Quite conveniently (and superficially) the two groups were also divided into graduate students and undergrads. Someday I will blog about the perils and drama of the Indian community in a little midwestern college town. Or not. Whichever comes first.

The buried subtext of the essay below is that I think the Indian Americans at our school were pretty much totally bratty, and that these differences that they saw among themselves and the newly-arrived immigrants were mostly thinly veiled expressions of self-loathing. But I don't say that. Instead, this pretentious, slightly cringe-inducing piece is what I wrote (a piece that I have an odd fondness for nonetheless, hence the post).


If you are a desi, chances are you know who F.O.B.'s and A.B.C.D's are. Fresh Off the Boat. American Born Confused Desis. Perhaps the oddest acronyms known since it has so little to do with Indians or Americans. Certainly Indians in India would be largely puzzled by identities so carelessly linked to transportation. It is a strictly Indian-American term, referring to the gap between first and second generation Indian-Americans. Years ago (back when I was unaware of any such acronyms), when people asked I would say, "I grew up in India. I am Indian" Smiling proudly, rolling my rr's, extending my ee's. Iiiiinddiiaa. My India. Disclaiming America in every way. I did not grow up in the suburbs of Iowa. I grew up in Bombay-a name I belonged to, a name that had made space for me, understood my Indian-ness without needing an explanation. Bombay-a word with far more exotic possibilities than I.o.w.a.

It was only later on a trip to India that I discovered parts of me distinctly American, like extensions I didn't know I had. I imagine a fashion crisis with my body in a kurta and jeans underneath. In America, as Indians we are all trying to reconcile our Indian traditions with clashing American values. We are Indians in America, trying to lay down our Americanisms on top of Indian-brown skins. Perhaps that's why it is so difficult to understand the "F.O.B's" and "A.B.C.D's"-terms that clearly separate us, divide us. One would think such meaningless designations would be just that-nonsense. But as we know, they become a superficial, but strong measure of Indian-ness in a world that is not Indian.

You look around and you see white swamis with clear blue eyes in the Ped Mall, asking you about the Bhagvad Gita. And the Vortex is selling "Shiva Loves You" T-shirts for $25 and the Peaceful Fool has cut up my mother's sarees into dipping, hugging dresses that my mom would crack my head open for wearing. An uneasy inclusion that feels even more alien. These days when people ask me, I say, "I came here when I was eleven." And I nod when I hear, "Oh, so you are American."-a word that feels like an ill-fitting shirt. (Does it show?) "You have an accent," some note, puzzled. And I am grateful that I haven't entirely dissolved in some proverbial melting pot. I am an American with strong and proud Indian roots. Not an A.B.C.D. with an accent.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie: Book Review

I savored the moment when I would read Shalimar the Clown, anticipated it as one might a lazy Sunday afternoon. I remember when I first read Satanic Verses in the same way one remembers falling in love for the first time--fondly, with real affection. Midnight’s Children, Last Moor’s Sigh, his short stories in East/West. These books are the reason I get excited when I hear that Salman Rushdie appeared on Seinfeld or Bridget Jones’ Diary or that he gave an interview at the restaurant down the street from my work. A writer whose wonderfully chaotic genius plays out in each page he writes with all the might of a true magician.

Which is all the more reason why it was so dismaying to find rampant mediocrity in his latest book, Shalimar the Clown. With the same dizzying rhetoric that has become his trademark, Rushdie lays out a multi-generational, multi-continental, multi-historical story of one man, his wife, her lover and all the people that populate their world. The book opens in Los Angeles, with the violent, and bloody death of the brilliant, and charming Max Ophlus—former US ambassador to India. His death spins out into the story of Boonyi Kaul and her husband, Shalimar, the clown—characters from two adjoining villages in Kashmir that enjoyed communal harmony, beauty and love before the terrible realities of personal and national infidelities. It’s a story of cruel betrayals, love, war, and death.

It's a story that despite all of its decorations, is uncomfortably simple. Two young people deeply in love are ripped apart by a beautiful outsider who whisks away the simple village girl for a fling that destroys all their lives. The husband becomes rabidly, murderously vengeful. A daughter named India/Kashmiri is born who grows up predictably troubled. Woven into the background, is the larger histories of WW II, the Indo-Pakistan war, and the LA riots.

Surprisingly clumsy at times, with overly-drawn out thought bubbles from characters whose maudlin self-importance was embarrassing. Take this passage for instance:

“The words right and wrong began to crumble, to lose meaning, and it was as if Max were being murdered all over again, assassinated by the voices who were praising him, as if the Max she knew were being unmade…” ...and so on.

There was a particularly hollow scene where Rushdie slyly alludes to a “writer against God, who spoke French and had sold his soul to the West”. He gets killed off by Islamic terrorists.

Aside from half-baked philosophsi-fizing, Rushdie draws problematic conclusions about the dangers of breaking free of one’s role and place in life. The characters in his novel suffer horribly for having ambitions, and dreaming big. Love is possessive and jealous and will always either stifle or betray you—it is an inescapable curse.

But despite all of its disappointing shortcomings, Rushdie still delivers an engaging story that lays out tempting morsels, after every disenchanting moment. At its best, Shalimar the clown soars high on its author's uncanny ability to tell a story. At its worst, the history that Rushdie uses to clog up his passages, feel like fillers--background noise to distract from the emptiness of his characters. It is like catching the magician slip a rabbit in his hat--the trick still works, but you now know the secret and it's not magic anymore.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Presidential Talkies #4

It has been a while since my last presidential entry and the man has been talking a lot. Chuckle away...

"...I didn't pick my Vice President for this hairdo..."
-- Oct. 6th, '04 (Pennsylvania)

"We will not have an all-volunteer army. And yet, this week--we will have an all-volunteer army"
-- Oct. 16th, '04 (Florida)

"One of the concerns The Majesty and I discussed is that Hezbollah may try to derail the peace process." -- Mar. 15th, '05 (press during a visit by the King Abdullah of Jordan)

"I'm also mindful that man should never try to put words in God's mouth. I mean, we should never ascribe natural disasters or anything else to God. We are in no way, shape, or form should a human being play God."
-- Jan. 14th, '05 (Washington, DC)

"If you're the Methodist Church and you sponsor an alcohol treatment center, they can't say only Methodists, only Methodists who drink too much can come to our program - 'All drunks are welcome', is what the sign ought to say."
-- Mar. 1st, '05 (Referring to faith-based programs, Washington, DC)

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Falun Gong etc.

I had this whole blog planned in my head this morning about Jose Padilla whose case got punted back from the supreme court recently. It's rage-inducing, sure...but also legally complicated. So I got distracted, and I found the Falun Gong had come to town. They have been demonstrating outside my work these past couple of days. Yesterday I watched them from my office terrace, marching with a full band, banners, and vivid demonstrations of torture by the Chinese government. Chinatown was crazy today. The marchers stomped by in the thickest rush hour traffic, with hundreds of people stopping to stare at the vaguely creepy serenity and orderliness of the Falun Gongers. Occasionally a ketchup-blood splattered lady with duct-tape across her mouth would solemnly hand out leaflets.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Immigration Rally Pictures

Okay, last word (maybe) on the immigration thing. Or pictures. I went to the Immigration rally last week, but I didn't take my camera. Luckily, my friend, Claire did. Yay!

Check out those pics here.

Immigrant Reform Arguments that Induce Screaming

Arguments and points raised that make me want to pull out all my hair and stuff them in my ears or something. Hence giving literal meaning to bald mary.

1. Taking away American jobs from Americans.

This is such a complicated, thorny problem that reducing it into a sound bite is really frustrating. The fact that there is little to no evidence to support this seems to matter very little. There is however a fairly manipulative and misleading basis for this connection. Studies that draw a correlation between decreased native jobs and increased immigrant labor. This is a strange analogy to me. Illegal immigrants come to this country to work, and the jobs they find are not registered, moderated work. So the fact that someone who is willing to pick tomatoes for 10hrs a day for below minimum rate wages, is more likely to be employed doesn’t mean much. My point is that illegal immigrants are in this country mostly to work, while this is simply not true for natives. It’s an odd comparison to make to begin with. It hardly shows that these immigrants are taking away jobs from Americans. The truth is that we have no real idea that the jobs that undocumented workers typically take would even exist if there were no illegal immigrants.

Legal immigration is a different view on this issue. The jobs that legal immigrants take are more likely to be jobs that Americans compete for, so presumably they do take jobs away from Americans. However, is that such a bad thing? Legal immigrants who get these jobs aren’t getting them because they are immigrants (they get them despite it, in so many cases); they get them because they have better qualifications. Isn’t that what we would want to happen?

Even if you don’t agree with that, what is undisputed is that these jobs hardly contribute significantly to overall job loss. This is also true for out-sourcing jobs which raised so many hackles in last year’s elections. The more communities that contribute to the work force, create small businesses and develop neighborhoods (thereby spending money and contributing to the market) only improve and enrich the economy.

2. They are illegal, isn't it illegal? So they are punishing something illegal. What's the problem?
The argument is not about whether or not illegal immigration is illegal, it is whether it should be criminalized into a felony. The problem is that coming into this country and working for 80 hours a week for $5/a day is not the same as raping and killing someone. These are not criminals. You are not allowed to pretend they are not workers who form a huge part of our culture, our economy, and our political system. This is a country that has been built on the sweat and the blood of immigrants, it is disgraceful the utter contempt with which the Republican Party has returned the favor.

3. Illegal immigrants shouldn’t acquire status that legal immigrants worked so hard to get.

-This makes me gag a little. I feel like shouting, “don’t you dare use me to sell your sorry ass policies!” This is an argument custom built for Americans who don’t actually know any immigrants—legal or illegal. The HR: 4377 resolution creates a hostile environment for legal and illegal immigrants alike. (Check this out if you have real player--interviews of legal detainees conducted by CAIR)

Any guest worker program is an inherently sensible policy—it encourages illegal immigrants to get documented, bringing them out of secrecy—something that salves both immigrants and protects our borders. The more we know about who lives and works here, the better we are able to understand our threats. For immigrants, the necessary secrecy that surrounds illegal status increases their risk of violence, and exploitation. Its exact counterpart is the HR: 4377 resolution which doesn’t have any guest worker provisions, will drive undocumented workers further into the shadows and isn’t actually feasible in any sense of the word.

My other posts on immigration here and here.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

there's a giant t.v. screen at the end of the tunnel

There are reasons why I have not noticed that the metro has put up advertisement-spouting, high-definition t.v. screens inside the subway tunnels. If you are a stalker and observe me riding the train, you will see that my habit for the past year has been to take out my book almost the very instant I find a seat, and bury myself in it for the next 20 to 30 minutes. I am a genius at drawing down the shades around me on a crowded subway train. This is why I was completely startled this morning (nearly jumping out of my seat) when I saw a silvery, shiny car outside my train window while it was hurtling through the subway tunnels.

That's right. A car. A Lincoln. Pretty, flashy, retina-burning car.

It's like McDonalds spreading the news on organic co-ops. Self-defeating, sure. But as the only major metrorail system in the US without a dedicated funding source, we can only tight-lip-shake-our-head through this too. Along with that one train car with the splashy, talking chevy-chase bank machine all over it like like green, grotesque pimples--we can only feel sorry for the shameless whoring of our rail transportation system. *sigh*

Some charming Metro poetry I found:)

It's the craziest thing I've ever seen:
If I wait for a Yellow, it's bound to be Green.
If I'm looking for Orange and I know that it's due,
The next train arriving is bound to be Blue.

Lot's more good ones here

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Immigration Reform Re-visited: Update

I laughed for about five minutes when I saw this cartoon this morning. I then forced my poor roommate to read it, and she chuckled politely. lol. Good one...

After weeks of wrangling and griping, the lumbering, finicky giant known as the US congress came to a compromise that actually garnered a semblance of bipartisan support. But yesterday the bill and discussion fell apart again. No resolution was reached. And the legislation was sent back to be re-tooled. Below is a really nice graphic of the compromise reached by the Senate. What was the problem? The democrats were unwilling to hedge on a procedural point regarding the number of amendments being allowed on this bill. Reinforcing the image in my mind of the Democratic Party as sniveling, petty little yes-men who will wield power in the most petty, littlest way possible.

Even if the Senate gets its act together and stops bickering the bill still has to be reconciled with the measure passed by the House last year. I blogged about that horror show here. There’s a rally happening in DC on Monday , April 10th--The National Day of Action for Immigrant Justice. I am going to try and attend. I will post pictures if I do and remember to take my camera. These rallies make me proud, nothing has helped shake up congress more than the force of ordinary people demanding their fair share loudly and in large numbers. What else would explain all the attention the circus show at the hill is getting?

From the Washington Post Article: Senate Pact Offers...

Saturday, April 08, 2006

I can't stand you

It's difficult to hide the fact that you dislike someone. Not hate, but just this insidious low-grade dislike that pokes through despite your best efforts. It's like love that way. I have disliked people before, obviously. Plenty of them. But the older I get, the less people I interact with on a daily basis that I just can't stand. I have learned to flick them out of my life quickly, swiftly and sometimes gleefully. When I meet these lost souls who have fallen out of favor with me I am able to identify them faster and, we mutually avoid each other to continue our lives happily without the buzzing urge to kill.

Currently there is one such lost soul in my universe. She's actually a pretty normal person most of the time. Even though secretly I believe she is incredibly selfish, childish, continues to say stupid, mindless things that are presented as thoughtful, and has no affection for logic. And I am of the opinion, that I like most people and get along with most without too much effort. So I am valiant in my efforts to like her--I strive so hard that my fake smile begins to hurt, and my neck is creaking a little from bobbing up and down so much by the end of our conversations. Consequently, I am awkward, insincere and humor-less around this person for which I blame this person. It's a vicious cycle, people.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Critical Fictions: The Politics of Imaginative Writing Edited by Philomena Mariani: Book Review

Margaret Atwood’s essay, The Female Body, begins with the wonderfully playful request, “I agree, it’s a hot topic. But only one? Look around, there’s a wide range. Take my own, for instance. I get up in the morning. My topic feels like hell. I sprinkle it with water, brush parts of it, rub it with towels…I dump in the fuel and away goes my topic, my topical topic, my controversial topic, my capacious topic…”

The very idea of a book that has collected essays about the politics of creativity is as provocative and irresistible an idea as Atwood’s invitation above. What would that look like? What does that mean? With the collected works of 41 internationally renowned authors from Zoe Wicomb and Ama Ata Aidoo to James Baldwin and Salman Rushdie, this collection of essays attempts to answer these questions through writings that explore “what it means to be writing from specific race, class and gender positions at a particular historical moment.” Which is to say that is a hopelessly inadequate description to the wonderful diversity and range found here.

This is a good book, with a few really great essays butting heads with feminist theory, poetry, and fiery conference presentations. One of the great things about a book like this, is that one minute you can be thoroughly irritated by the somewhat nonsensical incantation (and embarrassing if you picture it being blasted at a pro-choice rally in DC as it was) by Alice Walker’s The Right to Life: What can the White Man Say to the Black Woman? And the next minute you are sucked in by Philomena Mariani’s evocative and finely wrought essay, God is a Man. Among the noteworthy is my old favorite—Notes of a Native Son—which reminded me again why I love James Baldwin. Here’s an essay (like so many other treasures in this collection) that exemplifies how politics and art can be a formidable force that speaks the truth more loudly and clearly than anything we listen to or read. With exquisite finesse, Baldwin paints for us the racial politics of 1940s America through the lens of a difficult and abusive father. Here’s one of my favorite passages from that essay.

He was, I think, very handsome…Handsome, proud, and ingrown, “like a toenail”, somebody said. But he looked to me, as I grew older, like pictures I had seen of African tribal chieftains: he really should have been naked, with war paint on and barbaric mementos, standing among spears. He could be chilling in the pulpit and indescribably cruel in his personal life and he was certainly the most bitter man I have ever met; yet…buried in him, which lent him his tremendous power and, even, a rather crushing charm. It had something to do with his blackness, I think—he was very black—with his blackness and his beauty, and with the fact that he knew that he was black but did not know that he was beautiful.

Gorgeous. If I had my way, I would be typing out his entire essay.

There’s one more that stands out—a newbie (to me)—Gary Indiana’s Identity Check. A moment that poignantly captures the essence of the entire collection, is when the narrator’s mother discovers his diary and reads the lurid fantasies that her son has been having about his brother’s best friend—a poor, Portuguese teenage boy who lived “literally on the wrong tracks”. Here’s that passage.

She refuses to believe that Eugene’s big, stiff cock is a little boy’s fantasy. She grills me for days, an avenging cop: Where did it happen? How many times? Eager to blame an outsider for “corrupting” me, she cites this episode years later, still convinced of its reality, as the likely “cause” of my homosexuality. That might have been my first intimation of the power of the word…this writing was able to cause an eruption of violent feelings. My imagination altered the state of things in the real world.

The best of the pieces in this collection asks us to reconsider art as the only adequate medium for the truth and the politics of identity. At its worst, there are hysterical outcries against “oppressors” by the “oppressed”—words used too freely, blithely. If you get one of the latter, you can always flip it over and come to this challenge: “Rather than set agendas for various kinds of writing, we can do more than ask of our education system that it encourage the writer to think about how she positions herself in the political space. Reactionary positions may well be reduced, or may not. But readers will have to be prepared for both possibilities.” (Philomena Mariani’s God is a Man)